Supergrade? We need a greater degree of fairness
BEING only half-way through my A-level courses, I shall have to wait until next year to discover whether I have reached the criteria for the new A-level “supergrade”. But one would have to live in outer space not to think that its introduction was the most significant development in civilisation since sliced bread.
Usually at this time of year, the one big headline at least trying to be serious is the usual “GCSE standards are falling” one. Thanks to the introduction of the A-star grade for school leavers, in addition to the unprecedented scramble for university places, we have thankfully been spared such tiresome tirades, which are hugely demeaning of young people’s efforts.
This new grade, we were told, would eliminate the problems caused by grade inflation, or the perception of it, by creaming off the brightest of the bright into a brand new – and entirely separate – category. It might even force universities to become more meritocratic. They would be much more able to tell who was worthy of a place, after all – at least if we believe the media myth that the plain old A-grade is now as common as muck.
But it has been no secret that in recent years the gulf in achievement between state and private schools has been widening. This year was no exception, especially in the category of the new grade, with as many private pupils achieving A-stars as those at comprehensives, despite fee-payers accounting for only 14% of entries.
Up to last year, once the universities made their offers to prospective students, it was within the capability of most schools to ensure candidates achieved the necessary As. That is not to say that they found admissions difficult due to not being able to find out which applicants were the smartest – top universities can use both interviews and their own entrance exams.
But now the mark of excellence is significantly higher, I can imagine many state schools with limited resources – particularly after the coalition’s cuts have bitten – finding it a struggle to support their students’ applications, with many young people falling short of star-studded expectations.
Perhaps this year the most anyone is asking for is one A-star and two As (Cambridge’s standard offer) but expect that to rise in the future – once the media returns to grade inflation hysteria. With the most spare cash, private schools will be the best equipped to push students past the high 90 per cent mark required for A-stars.
We are therefore sleepwalking towards a system where top universities are dominated by the rich. Plus, because on the surface this is being done in the name of “meritocracy”, it will ease the pressure on those universities with a distorted social make-up, despite the likelihood of exacerbating this.
You’d hope that the press attention would be drawing our eyes to this, but it has mostly missed the point. A BBC radio programme on the new grade featuring the actress Imogen Stubbs concluded that exams were focused on technique rather than knowledge. Perhaps, but how many times has this been said before?
Until universities fully recognise that grades from cushy, fee-charging schools are in fact those which need to be deflated – to a level below those gained at comprehensives – social mobility will remain impaired.
• Conrad Landin is a student at Camden School for Girls
CAMDEN NEW JOURNAL, 26th AUGUST 2010
I also wrote for the CNJ on exam results – albeit with a GCSE focus, at this time last year. This can be viewed here on the CNJ’s website.